Benton Harbor was the feel-good story of the 2015 football season.
Elliot Uzelac, former coach at Navy and Western Michigan and longtime assistant at Michigan and Ohio State, came out of retirement at 74 to take control of a program riding a 19-game losing streak with only three wins in the previous eight seasons combined.
The Tigers finished 6-5 last season after making the state playoffs for the first time in school history, and they won a playoff game.
A year ago, with a regular-season record of 5-4, Benton Harbor had to wait until Selection Sunday to learn whether it made the playoffs. There will be no waiting this year.
The Tigers clinched a playoff spot last week with a 21-16 victory over Traverse City West, a Division 2 school, to improve to 6-0.
The victory also boosted Benton Harbor to No.4 in Division 4 in the Free Press rankings, up a couple of spots from the week before.
The amazing aspect of this is Benton Harbor has done this without two of its best players — linebacker Percy Brown and running back/defensive end Darius Clayton — who are among four players lost to injury.
The win over West was Benton Harbor’s most impressive of the season and proved these are no paper Tigers we’re talking about.
“I think we’re pretty good,” Uzelac said. “I still think we’re making some mistakes that we have to clean up — some mental errors, a couple of physical things technically — but I think we’re a good football team — we’re a solid team.”
They proved that when they came from behind against West, a talented team that could land in the Division 2 state playoffs.
Things were going West’s way in the first half when it limited Jeremy Burrell to 25 yards.
“They did a great job against us on the inside run,” Uzelac said. “They did not want Burrell to get the inside run. So, we made a couple of adjustments at halftime, worked some things more outside in instead of inside out, and it really helped us a lot.”
The changed blocking assignments permitted Burrell to finish with 119 yards on 19 carries with two touchdowns, one on a 23-yard reception.
Burrell has more than 1,000 yards, equaling his output of 11 games a year ago, and, more impressive, he is averaging 9.7 yards per carry.
Making Burrell so effective is his improved strength. He is squatting 500 pounds, benching 315 and power cleans 225.
Now you’re talking a kid packed in at 184 pounds, 5-10,” Uzelac said. “He doesn’t go down easy. People are bouncing off him. The line has to get some credit for that, too. We’ve been doing some pretty good things up front.”
Uzelac didn’t take the job until July 2015, meaning he had little time with his players before preseason practice. Entering this season, Uzelac had his players all winter, spring and summer.
That is when he was able to fully implement a weight program, which the school never had before. The players also went through a running program.
“We’re bigger and stronger and faster,” Uzelac said. “As a team, I don’t think anybody is going to be stronger or faster. But what we have to do is really work hard on the mental aspects of the game. This is where we have improved dramatically. We can do things mentally — adjustment-wise, offensively and defensively — we could never do last year.”
Over the years, Uzelac has established himself as a teacher of the game. That’s something he is proving again with these players, improving their football IQs.
“They know what we’re doing, and they know how we’re doing it,” he said. “Now, we can make adjustments with the offensive line, we can make defensive changes, things we just couldn’t do in the past.”
The funny thing is that what Uzelac has done on the field is the least important contribution he has made to the Benton Harbor community.
The players now realize that their academic performance is far more important than what they accomplish on the field.
In addition to teaching and coaching his players, Uzelac also is feeding them, thanks to the initiative of Trish Adams and Dana Humes, who have found a way to help provide meals for the players on a regular basis.
“Those are the two ladies that really started it and got it rolling, and my wife, Wendy, jumped in with those two,” Uzelac said. “But Trish and Dana, we would never have succeeded without what they’ve done. They just do a phenomenal job for our players.”
The people in town might describe Uzelac’s performance the same way.
Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1.